Netflix ruffled a few feathers when they launched a new part of their service in May: a message to viewers saying the reason their video couldn’t be played was because their ISP was too congested. That’s right, when Netflix detected a viewer’s connection wasn’t adequate it put a message on the screen letting them know it wasn’t Netflix’s fault, but their ISP.
In particular they focused on Verizon customers, but said the messages would soon be going out for many more ISPs. The first messages were made “public” via Twitter on June 3rd, but not by Netflix. A journalist tweeted about it and ignited the battle that would follow.
Verizon sent Netflix a cease and desist letter shortly after the 3rd. By the 9th Netflix had removed the messages but not after saying publically that Verizon was to blame. The situation quickly degraded into finger pointing about whose network was really responsible.
But underneath all the hubbub is the issue of net neutrality which is the idea that everyone should have equal access to content. In the US, the laws surrounding the internet and how it is accessed are being contested. Large network providers like Verizon and Comcast are beginning to charge services for bandwidth. Just earlier this year Netflix signed contracts with both Comcast and Verizon to deliver their content directly to the ISPs without routing through various other providers. This causes many to fear that the “free” Internet, the one where you can get almost any content from any provider without paying a premium will disappear.
ISPs own much of the infrastructure that delivers the Internet to consumers and businesses. As more demand is place on bandwidth, they can charge services like Netflix for a larger chunks of the bandwidth. Those costs will roll down to the consumer eventually, meaning free streaming content, or inexpensive streaming (in the case of Netflix) will go away. Only those that can afford it will have access to such services. This goes against the principles many say the Internet was founded and thrives on.
It’s a simple concept with complicated regulations and very strong opinions on both sides. But it could end up affecting all of us eventually. If you want to know more about net neutrality, why it matters and why you should care take a look at this article on the BBC. The author does a wonderful job of putting it all in context.